Sometimes, good management is about deciding when not to decide.
6 min read
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When I was a young manager, I sometimes took too long to reach a decision. I kept thinking I needed more information. Smart decisions are based on good and insightful information, right? Or was I just overly cautious, trying to avoid dealing with an unknown outcome? As I matured, I became hyper-aware of this shortcoming and resolved to make prompt decisions every time something crossed my desk, but this behavior can also force unintended consequences.
How often has this happened to you? There are a million things going on, everything feels like an emergency, then someone shoots you an ultimatum demanding, “You’ve got to make a decision. Right away!” Yet, after you’ve made your pronouncement, you realize the better path was to postpone the decision — for a while. New information came in, someone offered a new option, or the consequence of some later action might have affected your earlier choice if you’d had more time to consider other input and variables.
Yet, because leaders are hardwired to be proactive to avoid logjams, we often let ourselves be rushed by seemingly urgent problems that may not, upon reflection, be all that time-critical. I’ve found that when people, especially those with a vested interest, are forcing me to push the “fast-forward” decision button, it’s time to hit “pause.”
Related: The 7 Styles of Decision-Making
The Triage Method
Medical professionals facing emergencies that compress time, tax precious resources and demand split-second life-or-death decisions use the art of triage — from the French word “trier” meaning “to sort” or separate — to prioritize the urgency of treatment and degree of care. In the middle of controlled chaos, doctors and nurses pause long enough to “asses and assign,” an expression for weighing the consequences of immediate or deferred action for each patient and prioritizing intervention accordingly.
That’s a good model for all of us as we’re pressed to make decisions that affect the structural integrity and emotional readiness of the organizations we serve. Sometimes we need to triage a situation to get the decision-making process back on our own timeline. Triage starts with assessment, so here are questions worth asking yourself while way you weigh requests and take — or defer — action.
Does a timely decision benefit from more time?
First-to-market advantages, getting new products into a sales pipeline or seizing opportunities before they’re lost are all sound and strategic reasons for being decisive. Yet pausing to triage decision “A” to consider an additional, nuanced option “B” might offer new insight, or even a strategic pivot point. Sometimes waiting for a natural order of things to proceed is, itself, strategic.
Is this about checking items off a list or furthering a mission?
Doers do checklists. Leaders work toward big-picture milestones that advance a company’s mission. Certainly, you’ve got to give your people the go-ahead they need to move projects forward, but don’t think thatmaking 10 “permission” decisions isn’t the same as tackling that one “imperative” judgement that advances your company’s big-picture vision. Making 10 definitive pronouncements makes you feel like the boss. Making that one tough call makes you a leader.
Am I being cautious or just kicking the can down the road?
Being a good manager means getting the critical information you need and soliciting a spectrum of ideas to build a consensus, right? Promoting inclusion and soliciting varied insights are important, but they’re often an excuse for delaying sometimes uncomfortable decisions. “Let’s wait for the report from the field before we launch,” “Can we get some customer feedback on what they think about our new pricing model?” or, “Let’s wait to see if `x’ happens ‘cause maybe we won’t have to act,” are the kind of warning-sign comments that signal you might be kicking that decision can down the road.
Do I have all the information I need?
The answer is “never,” because there’s always something more to consider. For sure, there’s a fine line between being bold and reckless. Yet, taking a page from our medical counterparts facing need-to-move-now action, they’re trained to make decisions with good but almost always incomplete information. They’re experts at plotting the intersection of good information, timely circumstances and a pressing imperative to spur a decision — right, wrong or maybe. One of the keys in this kind of decision-making is “agile planning,” a fancy term for rapid and ongoing reassessment of circumstances and opportunities to revise a plan. Knowing that no option or plan is ever final is helpful in weighing if a decision needs to be made now or can be deferred.
Does the person pressing me for a decision have their own agenda?
I’m not an overly suspicious person. In fact, I’m very trusting of the talent and views of the people I work with. Yet, with all good intentions, when I’m pressed to make a fast decision, I do ask, “Why now?” What’s pushing that person to ask for a quick answer? There’s nothing nefarious going on, but it’s my job to gauge if that decision is a need-to-do or a want-to-have, based on the person asking and the agenda they’re advancing. If it’s the latter, maybe we can hold off, ask more questions and find another vantage. Better yet, let me engage that eager colleague with questions that challenge them to evaluate a “need-it-now” request against the “what-about-this?” vision. Taking a beat and deciding not to decide gives us that opportunity, and isn’t that what leaders are supposed to do?